As you know already, lyrics are the words to a song. Maybe you want to write lyrics of your own, but aren’t sure where to begin. Or maybe you’re a seasoned songwriter who’s brushing up on the basics before you start writing an album.
Writing lyrics is different from writing poetry, fiction, or any other type of creative writing. So what makes a lyric a lyric, instead of a poem or something else? Lyrics are usually:
- written to be sung
- written in lines
- organized into song sections
- short and condensed
- rich in rhyme, repetition, and other poetic techniques
Let’s look at each of these qualities in a little more detail.
Lyrics are written to be sung
Instead of being written and read on a page, a lyric is meant to be performed.
Sometimes a lyricist starts with a melody and writes words to match. This means she’ll likely choose her words to fit the melody. Other times, the lyricist writes a lyric with no music; the music comes later. A songwriter can also write both lyrics and music simultaneously; for example, she might write with her guitar on one knee and her notebook on the other. These are just examples; there are endless ways to write a song. No matter the method, songs come together in pieces, and the pieces can come in a different order each time you write.
Whether a song’s lyric or music comes first, the end goal is the same: each syllable of the lyric is joined to one musical note. Each word becomes part of a melody, and each note is given meaning. In the end we hopefully have a compelling lyric sung to a melody that moves our listeners.
Rap lyrics are a little different: Instead of singing, a rapper chants the lyrics over some kind of background beat. Rap downplays melody and emphasizes rhythm — but singing and rapping are both valid ways of performing a lyric.
Whether rapping or singing, this much is true: An author writes to be read, but a lyricist writes to be heard.
Lyrics are written in lines
Lyrics, like poetry, are written in short lines that don’t reach the right margin of the page. The lyricist chooses where to break a line.
Many lyricists just use their instincts when deciding the length of each line. I’ve noticed songwriters instinctively write lines of lyric that roughly match one melodic phrase. Songwriters don’t always realize they’re doing this; their choice may just come naturally from listening to music their entire lives and developing a feel for where lines break.
Lyricists who are poetically trained might choose to measure out a certain number of syllables per line. For example, maybe the lyricist has decided that each line of a verse section will be about eight syllables long. Measuring out syllables in patterns like this can give lyrics a musical rhythm even before they’re set to music.
Please note that when you’re writing a lyric, one line doesn’t have to be a complete sentence. Sentences can stop in the middle of a line too; or continue running past the end of one line into the next. A line doesn’t always have to end in a period! In fact, it’s your choice whether you use punctuation on your lyric sheets at all.
A lyric’s lines are organized into song sections
Lyricists group lines into regular sections of two, three, four, or more. In poetry those groups are called stanzas. When they’re written down, a blank line separates the stanzas of a poem; this is also true for lyrics.
Each stanza of a lyric belongs to a particular song section: most commonly a verse * or a *chorus. The chorus section gets sung multiple times throughout the song, each time with the same words. Between choruses we usually hear verse sections. A song’s verses share roughly the same melody with each other, but with different words each time. Because its lyrics change each time, each verse section can contribute new imagery, a new idea, or the next piece of the story before leading us back to the chorus section.
Lyrics are written in rhyme, repetition, and other poetic techniques
If you take a music theory class (recommended!), you might hear music teachers say that music is like a language. That’s true. But it’s also true that language is like music.
The lyricist doesn’t just use words to communicate ideas, describe scenes, and tell stories; she also arranges those words into patterns that sound pleasing to the ear when the lyrics are read aloud or sung.
Lyrics almost always use rhyme, of course. Usually a lyricist rhymes by placing words that sound alike at the ends of lines. There’s a lot more to rhyme than what you were taught in school, though. For a detailed guide on finding rhymes and using rhyme schemes, check out The Songwriter’s Guide to Rhyme[http://nicholastozier.com/songwriters-guide-to-rhyme/].
In lyric writing, repetition is also very common. Throughout a typical lyric you’ll notice the singer singing whole phrases, lines, and sections repeatedly for effect. These repetitions are called the refrain or chorus. A common way to arrange a lyric is to sing verse one, sing the chorus, sing verse two, sing the chorus again, and so on. Through this pattern, the listener gets a taste of famliar sections mixed in with new ideas, hopefully holding her interest all the way through the song.
Lyrics are short and condensed
Songs are usually short, so lyric writers work within tight word counts. If a lyricist is writing a song with three verses and a chorus section, each section might only contain four lines of lyric. That gives the songwriter only 16 lines in which to communicate her song’s entire story or premise: less than one notebook page.
The lyricist’s challenge is to communicate a lot using just a few words. There are many techniques for accomplishing this; popular choices include sensory imagery, simile, and metaphor. Just like a musical instrument, a lyricist can learn, practice, and master use of these techniques. It’s not unusual for a lyricist to rewrite lines and even whole sections of her lyric multiple times before she’s satisfied that she said something worthwhile, and said it in a pleasing or clever way.
Study these lyric writing basics often
Not every lyric follows the five points above, but when you’re starting out, or when you get stuck, getting back to basics can be surprisingly helpful.
Write in lines; organize the lines into sections; use rhyme and other nice-sounding poetic devices; and while you’re managing all that, try to be brief. This is all easy to say, of course, but you could spend a lifetime exploring ways of accomplishing these things — analyzing how successful lyrics use these principles, and applying the tricks you learn to songs of your own.
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